I have to admit that ultimately I know almost nothing about Russia, Russians, and the Russian Revolution. As much as I’ve read of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Checkov and Babel, and other novelists and dramatists, I can never quite understand much about the Russian character (as told in fiction), Russian history (outside of events and facts), and the Soviet Union. There’s a lot of reasons for this. For one, it’s taken me 40 years to really begin to process much about the US and its effects on me as a person growing up within the ssytem. This both makes me an expert and a witting and unwitting stooge as the process of understanding means that I have to create my understanding by destroying my acculturation (minus what I hope to keep).
So when I read someone like Masha Gessen (their nonfiction) or Keith Gessen (his fiction), I am struck by how much they know about what it means to live in Russia and be Russian, while also moving away from it and detaching themselves from it. Keith Gessen’s permanently relocating and Masha’s outsider status as a queer person and a Leftist, means that they see things about Russia from both an insider and outsider status. That means they I have a better grasp of things through their writing than many other writers. I get a similar sense from reading Nabokov, but he’s deeply tricksy, even or especially in his memoir Speak, Memory (plus I need to reread him).
So in picking up this book, I am hoping to learn more about the Soviet revolution, hopefully through less propaganda that I might get from someone like Pasternak on one end or Sholokov on another, without the nose to belly closeness of Babel’s writing, without the state propaganda of the USSR or the USA guiding me.
And I have to tell you. It’s still immensely complicated and complex to work through. I have almost no touchstones. But Slezkine spends a lot of time early on tying Communism but more specifically The Party, to the ways in which millinarian cults work. Specifically these cults tend to me almost imemdiately messianic in structure, childless in approach, and need to promise the universe and beyond within one generation. The nature of revolutions also creates this kind of tension, where if there isn’t an immediate and sweeping change with the new promises fulfilled, then the seeds of the collapse of the revolution are immediately sown, and will be reaped. It’s not that different then in thinking about how plenty of other revolutions are discussed — both real (French, Soviet, Nazi) and imagined (the Left and Right wing fantasies of their own specific authoritarinism) as well as the utopian visions that so many countries have.
From here: we get the actual building of the building, with archtectural philosophies being filtered through Bolshevist ideology, how the space would embody the political philosophy.
We get the construction, the completion, and then the first assignments for living.
And the book goes on!
Please note that this is a very long book that is both packed with Russian names and details and ideas, but it’s also written with a sometimes poetic, sometimes airy language. A lot of reviewers mention how much more exhausting the book felt after the first section, but while the book was long and a little sluggish, I actually liked the more detail and concrete later sections more.